CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0

These old-school online services may be shadows of their former selves, but they have a lot to teach today's online communities.

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Founded: 1981

Status: Available at

Unlike some of its competitors, which were started as side projects at larger organizations, Delphi was founded in 1981 with the goal of providing online access to information. It was launched by author Wes Kussmaul as Kussmaul Encyclopedia, the first online encyclopedia. By 1982, it featured message boards, e-mail and chat rooms as well.

Delphi was a small but persistent contender for online revenue well into the '90s, at which point the company tried several tactics to remain competitive in the face of the growing popularity of the Internet. In 1992, Delphi became one of the first national online services to offer consumer access to many elements of the Internet, such as telnet, Usenet and gopher. Around this time, Delphi membership peaked at 125,000.

The service languished in 1993 after being bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which in turn sold Delphi in 1996 to a group that included Bill Louden, former General Electric employee and founder of GEnie. Louden and company made Delphi accessible from the Internet, with Web pages for each member and forum.

This transition coincided with the elimination of membership fees, with the expectation that Web-based advertising would generate sufficient revenue to replace it. As with many dot-com era initiatives, reality fell short of expectations, and Delphi was soon for sale once again. Its management team merged with a company called Wellengaged to form Prospero Technologies, which in 2001 sold Delphi to a group that discontinued Web access. Prospero then repurchased Delphi just a year later and replaced the text-based access with a new Web interface that exists to this day, despite a buyout of Prospero in 2008 by Mzinga.

Delphi learned its lesson with its first attempt at an ad-based existence. Tony Ward, who has been a staff member on the service's Showbiz forum for more than a decade, notes that while the company does offer a free ad-based account, users must sign up for a paid account to get features such as an e-mail address, personal Web space, a blog, spell-checking, a custom signature and the ability to search old messages.

In this age of free Web communities such as Facebook, many still find Dephi a valuable service, says Ward: "I think a lot of people prefer the moderated message-board format over the free-for-all blog format that has become so prevalent in recent years. It's nice to know that most forums are well run and well organized thanks to their staff members. Some of the more popular Delphi forums get hundreds of messages per day. One, the Opinion Forum, gets over a thousand almost every day."

NEXT: Prodigy

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